WARHOL AUTHENTICATION BOARD BLUES
Remember a couple of months ago, when the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts announced that it would disband its authentication board, and stop offering those make-it-or-break-it opinions on the legitimacy of works of art purported to be from the hand of the Pop Art master?
The foundation had just been through a drawn-out court battle over the authenticity of Joe Simon's 1964-65 Red Self-Portrait, a fight that had reportedly cost it $7 million in legal fees. "It's absurd," said foundation president Joel Wachs at the time. "We want our money to go to artists, not lawyers." (True, the foundation did file a friend-of-the-court brief in Cariou v. Prince, but says the legal work was pro bono.)
What effect would the Warhol Foundation decision have on the Andy Warhol market? And how might it influence the many other artist-endowed foundations and their attitude towards authenticating artworks for the art market?
These questions prompted the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) to convene a panel discussion at the Grolier Club on East 60th Street in Manhattan on the evening of Dec. 7, 2011. "Warhol Board Stops Authenticating: Issues and Fallout" boasted an impressive lineup of six speakers: Robert Storr, dean of the Yale U. School of Art; Christine Vincent, study director of the Aspen Institute's study of artist-endowed foundations; Jack Flam, president of the Dedalus Foundation, which oversees the estate of Robert Motherwell; Jack Cowart, executive director of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation; Peter R. Stern of the law firm McLaughlin & Stern; and David J. Nash, the art dealer who is a principal of Mitchell-Innes & Nash.
IFAR executive director Sharon Flescher introduced the panel, and noted that IFAR was not a disinterested party, as it had received a half-dozen inquiries of late as to whether it might not take over the authentication role. In any case, she noted that each panelist would offer ten minutes of remarks, with questions to follow.
Storr was given special leeway to make a slightly longer statement, in which he emphasized his interest in the minutiae of art historical scholarship, drawing examples from Peter-Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn as well as Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Sol LeWitt. His comments set up an opposition that would carry through much of the discussion -- the art market vs. scholarship, with most of the panelists favoring the latter. Sometimes more emphatically than others: "I don't give two shits about the art market," Storr said at one point.
Storr was especially irritated by one collector -- Peter Brant, though Storr didn't name him -- who took the initiative to assemble 16 individual 20 x 16 in. Warhol "Jackie" paintings into one large Sixteen Jackies, offering it at Sotheby's New York in May 2011 with an estimate of $20 million-$30 million, presumably in search of a "windfall" profit. Warhol himself had made five such "Jackie" grids, but this "artificial" example wasn't one of them, and Storr took some pleasure from the fact that the picture sold at the bottom of its estimate, as if the market had seen through the subterfuge.
But we should cut to the chase. What was the takeaway from the panel discussion? The Red Self-Portrait court case -- the "elephant in the room," as Peter Stern had it -- was little discussed. But a major conclusion was reached all the same, and that is that artist-endowed foundations would be wise to avoid getting involved in authentication at all.
Cowart was most amusing on this score. He quickly noted that the Lichtenstein Foundation originally had no collection (the art is held by the estate, which is a profit-making entity, compared to the charitable foundation) and was charged only with compiling a catalogue raisonné.
But in 2004, Cowart said, with the naďve notion of protecting Lichtenstein's reputation, the foundation began to invite submissions of questionable works. As Cowart said, "No good deed goes unpunished," and the foundation was flooded with all manner of drawings with fantastical non-provenances, copies after known works and assorted other junk aimed directly at the art market, and not the best part of the art market, either. Almost none of the submissions actually raised scholarly questions.
The foundation has since dropped its authentication efforts, Cowart said, after it realized that "Roy doesn't need protecting," and that it didn't have to fight battles on his or his market's behalf. As Christine Vincent had said earlier, providing authentication may not even be a proper "charitable purpose" under the law, since it is tied up with market value and the interests of an individual owner rather than the common public good.
When it comes to authentication, Cowart said, "It's not of interest, it's not a necessity, and we respectfully opt out." What does he do when one of the auction houses calls to ask for his expertise? He said he "savors the surrealistic moment," and provides a list of other scholars and authorities in the field.
But wait, doesn't the end of the Warhol Foundation authentication effort hurt the art market? David Nash, the art dealer, noted -- to put things in perspective -- that very few fakes come up for sale at the major auction houses, and that the market has its own ways of dealing with these issues. The Willem de Kooning estate, for instance, does not and will not issue certifications, and the market manages to distinguish good from bad.
Still, he said he "regrets" the Warhol Foundation decision, because it would be an "inconvenience" -- but he doubts that it would have much impact on the Warhol market.